Was anyone surprised when self-made New Zealand apostle Brian Tamaki courted controversy and arrest while taking part in two anti-lockdown protests in Auckland recently? Or that during one such event he said he preferred to live in “dangerous freedom rather than peaceful slavery” and compared the Director General of Health to Hitler?
He was, after all, the same Brian Tamaki whose followers at Destiny Church wanted to reclaim Christchurch “for Jesus” in the aftermath of the 2019 terrorist attacks. And who blamed the Christchurch earthquakes on “gay people, sinners and the murderers”.
Those familiar with the branch of modern Christianity known as Pentecostalism would not have been surprised at all. Tamaki’s Destiny Church is part of the fastest growing religious movement in the world, with approximately 500 million adherents.
Today the average Pentecostal is as likely to be Nigerian, Fijian, Korean or Brazilian as he is British, American, Australian or Kiwi.
Aotearoa New Zealand is just one of the many places where Pentecostalism is thriving. In addition to the larger churches such as Destiny, City Impact, the Assemblies of God (AOG), and Elim, a host of smaller congregations exist throughout the country.
Here and elsewhere, the Pentecostals’ unwavering assertion that the raw power of the Holy Spirit will prevail over the principalities of darkness has clashed with the cultural and environmental realities of the modern world.
A record of resistance
Nowhere is this more evident than in their responses to COVID-19. As nation states have rolled out public health measures, Pentecostals have seemed reluctant and unable to accept epidemiological explanations and strategies.
Tamaki’s shares are the tip of an iceberg of global resistance. Pentecostals have been at the forefront of legal pushbacks against gathering restrictions and have insisted that only the second coming of Christ will force churches to close.
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They proclaimed that COVID cannot survive in the bodies of worshipers, declared a connection between the virus and 5G mobile technology, and maintained that the pandemic is God’s standard to distinguish his faithful servants from suitors.
Although these claims and interpretations may seem outlandish and dangerous, they are not entirely incomprehensible. Rather than viewing them as nonsense, it’s more helpful to view them as a whole different kind of meaning.
miracles and wonders
Specifically, Pentecostal values are a religious response to the pandemic and a spiritualization and demonization of the virus. This goes directly to the Pentecostal obsession with the Holy Spirit.
Pentecostalism is defined above all by its intense experience. More than any other Christian variant, it is about saturating human existence in otherworldly power.
Read more: Pentecostals and spiritual warfare against coronavirus in Africa
The Pentecostal vocabulary is not one of ritual, liturgy or structure, but one of ecstasy, surprise, miracles and wonder.
From this point of view, any restriction, rule or earthly imposition that prevents a life in the Spirit is, by default, suspect and anathema. This establishes an overarching opposition between the spiritual and the mundane that helps define the difference between good and evil or God and Satan.
For the devoted Pentecostal, it’s either one or the other, and to be on the side of the world is to cooperate with the enemy. Several features of this theology directly shape Pentecostal responses to COVID-19.
Triumphalism: Pentecostals are fearless fighters in spiritual warfare against Satan. The Holy Spirit is the ultimate weapon in this charge, providing absolute confidence in a Biblically preordained victory. With its long shadow of disease and fear, COVID-19 bears the devil’s signature.
Framed as an active demonic force, the virus is something that should not – must not – be feared. The triumphalism determined by total faith in the Spirit to overcome evil immediately establishes an ethos that rejects caution, regulation and withdrawal.
Deliverance and Healing: The first expels demonic forces threatening well-being, while the second cleanses a sick body affected by these same powers. These religious tools are used against the pandemic, warding off the satanic virus threat while healing the afflicted. Logically, vaccination becomes unnecessary, misguided and a betrayal of faith.
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Tribulation: Pentecostals are deeply concerned with the end of human history as a precursor to the return of Christ and the establishment of the paradise kingdom of God. The Tribulation is a seven-year nightmare of evil and suffering featuring the rise of an infamous “new world order”.
In this end-time scenario, all of humanity is marked with the mark of the beast, a process authorized by Satan. Doomsday plague and satanic mandates for vaccination provide further prophetic justification for a pro-healing and anti-vaccination stance.
The kingdom: Pentecostals are not big fans of worldly entities and human rules. They prefer divine authority, spiritual inspiration and biblically sanctified morality. The Kingdom of God is juxtaposed against the degraded platforms of government and capitalism (even as countless Pentecostals embrace divinely sanctioned materialism).
Translated into the context of the pandemic, the government’s ongoing legislative and policy directives are, due to their human origin, tainted with inequity. As always, primary trust must be placed in the Holy Spirit and the Bible.
Read more: Are You There God? Whether we pray harder or endure anger depends on the religious doctrine of Providence
faith and science
It can be tempting to view Pentecostalism as its own worst enemy by denying science and leaving its proponents vulnerable to epidemiological catastrophe.
But it is also a relatively young branch of Christianity and not necessarily uniform in its beliefs. As has been observed elsewhere, “medical science and divine healing […] were never seen as mutually exclusive by the whole movement”.
So the question becomes: can Pentecostalism achieve a detente with the world, as the Protestant, Anglican and Catholic churches have?
It would seem that the tide could be turned, even if constrained by tragedy. For example, after the death of one of its congregants, the Pentecostal church at the center of the largest sub-cluster of the current Auckland Delta outbreak embraced vaccination, after initially denying its validity.
It’s a pattern that is now being repeated in many pockets of the Pentecostal world, albeit within a church still obsessed with spiritual vibrancy and miraculous healings. For now, however, it may take more than faith in the world’s reason to persuade Brian Tamaki and his flock that vaccines and lockdowns are a blessing, not a curse.